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Gorge: examining the lines

The Columbia River Gorge Commission is tackling some long unfinished business: drawing precise boundary lines around the 13 urban areas in the national scenic area.

Some 27 years after the scenic area was formed, there are still uncertain boundary lines throughout it.

“There have been some very contentious longstanding disputes about the location of a few boundary lines,” said Gorge Commission Executive Director Darren Nichols.

“We anticipate as the gorge faces growth, these kinds of contentious disputes will continue to arise. And we hope to eliminate these kinds of disputes.” In the last 18 months, surveyors have created exact boundaries where they could, based on original maps drawn by Congress in 1986 when the scenic area was created.

Congress “literally used a Magic Marker on paper maps and depending on the size of the pen and how hard they were pressing, the width of those lines varies in different places from approximately 50 feet to a couple hundred feet,” Nichols said. Even with those thick lines, surveyors were able to firmly establish about 90 to 95 percent of the boundaries for the urban areas, Nichols said, using standard surveying techniques and protocols.

But a few areas are still unclear, he said. In some cases, Congress drew the same boundaries in different places on different maps. Other issues are more a policy decision and not a function of technical surveying techniques, he said.

Those include whether to draw a line in the middle of a stream, or on its left or right bank, and, similarly, whether to draw the line down the middle of a road right of way, or on either side of it.

In some cases, it’s not really clear if the line was even meant to follow a stream, Nichols said.

The problem with using something like the middle of a right of way or stream is that both can change. Storms can reroute streams, and property transactions can affect rights of way, he said.

The goal is to create a clear, objective, understandable policy that is durable enough to contend with any future changes, Nichols said.

Now that the surveyors have taken it as far as they can, the matter becomes a policy decision, and the Gorge Commission has turned to Oregon Consensus for help.

Oregon Consensus is an entity at Portland State University that helps public bodies develop policy through a collaborative process that includes gathering input from multiple interested parties.

The theory behind collaborative process is that the more people who effectively participate in the formation of a policy, the more accepting and supportive they will be of it.

Oregon Consensus has already interviewed 15 people about issues surrounding the boundary lines, and it has a few more interviews to go, Turner Odell told the commission at its Oct. 8 meeting in Vancouver.

Then it will analyze the answers and try to create a recommendation about an acceptable format for the policy-setting process, he said. The goal is to have that recommendation before the end of the year.

The work of actually setting the policy will have its own timeline, Odell said.

Because of the technical complexity of the issue, Odell said one option is forming a small committee of experts to sort issues into categories for a larger group to work on. He stressed the smaller group would not make decisions on anything.

All interviewees so far have agreed there were problems.

“People felt the line seemed to fall in unintentional areas,” Odell said. He added that each urban area boundary would have its own set of issues and concerns and there will be a “desire to air those,” and “have them settle out.”

The goal would be to take those issues to a local level in a way that makes sense for available staff resources, he said.

Gorge Commissioner Don Bonker was in Congress when the scenic area legislation was passed in 1986. He said the boundaries were an area that Congress neglected, “But on the other hand, Congress doesn’t usually engage in a lot of detail.”

He had concerns about the end result of defining the boundaries. “It seems to me we’re in uncharted waters. In the worst case scenario, we’re talking about an endless series of lawsuits.”

Anytime you’re talking about boundaries, he said, you’re talking about lawsuits.

“That’s exactly why we asked Oregon Consensus to help, because that’s a very real issue,” said Gorge Commission Planner Jennifer Kaden. She noted there are pending lawsuits on boundaries.

She said the idea of engaging landowners in the first place in this collaboration and consensus-building process is to identify areas of discomfort, to avoid lawsuits.

“Hopefully this approach will find satisfaction for a wide group of landowners,” she said.

To avoid lawsuits, it was necessary to have balanced viewpoints represented at each step of the process, said Gorge Commissioner Bowen Blair. “How do you do that?”

“That’s the million dollar question,” Odell said. Gorge Commission Attorney Jeff Litwak said, “We may not avoid all litigation,” but we hope to end up with a consensus product.

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